Lessons Learned the Hard Way: Cohabitation and the Law

Many cohabiting partners live together as a trial before becoming a married couple. This is sometimes called "premarital cohabitation." They can test their compatibility as roommates. They can also save money before deciding to marry.

There are many reasons cohabitating couples may cite for not getting married. Some say they don't need a "piece of paper" to prove their love and commitment to each other. Other couples choose to live together without getting married to avoid the legal entanglements of marriage.

There are some considerations cohabitating partners should take before moving in together. Although cohabitating relationships can break up fairly simply, that's not always true.

The following is a primer on cohabitation and the law, with a real-life example of lessons learned the hard way.

The Case of Lee and Michelle Triola Marvin

One of the most notorious examples of the legal quagmire about the end of a cohabitating partnership is the case of Lee and Michelle Triola Marvin. Lee Marvin, the famous actor, and his partner, Michelle, lived together as unmarried partners for several years. Then, they decided to call it quits.

When they did, Michelle claimed she was entitled to spousal support. She also said she was entitled to an equal division of the property acquired during their cohabiting relationship. But, the actor disagreed.

Oral Cohabitation Agreements

Michelle claimed that she and Lee had an oral agreement. She said the agreement said they would "combine their efforts and earnings and would share equally any and all property accumulated as a result of their efforts whether individual or combined." According to Michelle, the agreement also said that Michelle's contributions would be in the form of her services. These services included "companion, homemaker, housekeeper, and cook."

Michelle sought the help of the California courts in enforcing this alleged oral agreement.

The first court to hear the matter held in favor of Lee Marvin. Michelle appealed, and the appellate court agreed with her, at least in theory. It concluded that adults who live together are just as competent as others to enter into contracts regarding their earnings and property. The fact that a contract is not in writing does not necessarily make it unenforceable. Even implied contracts, the court stated, are worthy of enforcement.

Cohabitation Agreements and Palimony

The court determined an implied contract was enforceable. There was then a separate proceeding to determine if it was valid. In an appellate decision, the court concluded that Lee Marvin had not agreed to support Michelle. The court found he didn't intend to share his property with her. Therefore, she wasn't entitled to "palimony."

Although it may appear Lee Marvin got off free as a bird, he paid a significant cost. Over five years, he had to pay for expensive litigation and other expenditures of time, money, and emotional energy. If the court had found an oral agreement, the result would have been even costlier for Lee.

Should I Enter into a Cohabitation Agreement?

There's a lesson to be learned from this story. Perhaps the best way to avoid the type of situation faced by the Marvins is to enter into a cohabitation agreement before moving in together. The agreement can set forth the parties' expectations in a legally enforceable manner. This can help ensure one partner is not saddled with unexpected financial burdens. And in the alternative, a partner who was promised future spousal support can enforce that expectation.

Couples living together might also consider a prenuptial agreement. Many married people enter prenuptial agreements before marriage. These agreements help to secure their assets in the event of a breakup. To protect your assets, you might also consider keeping bank accounts separate. You may want to put major purchases property in your own name. You might also want to avoid holding yourselves out to the public as a married couple.

Some states recognize common-law marriages. Some states, such as New York, do not. Unmarried couples who live together don't receive the same legal rights as married couples. So, some couples may need to enter different types of agreements depending on their needs.

Some people in a cohabitating relationship may choose to sign a power of attorney to ensure that their partner has decision-making authority if they become incapacitated. Unmarried parents may also need to establish child support agreements if they have children together. Surviving partners in cohabitating relationships may face unique inheritance and property rights challenges if their partner dies without a will or estate plan.

The type of agreement you may need depends on your situation. For more considerations, visit FindLaw's page, Cohabitation and the Law: Tips and Warnings.

Get Professional Help with Your Cohabitation Legal Issues

If you're living with someone and want to understand cohabitation and the law, time is of the essence. A well-written cohabitation agreement might be the right thing for your situation. Or, a different kind of agreement may be better.

A family law attorney can help provide you with valuable legal advice for your situation. They will advise you about your legal rights. They will help you understand your legal protections as a cohabiting, unmarried couple.

Speak with an experienced family law attorney in your neighborhood today.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • You may want to consider creating powers of attorney or prenup agreements
  • Getting an attorney’s advice is a good idea if there are children or substantial property involved
  • An attorney can help you responsibly enter and exit cohabitation

Get tailored advice about property, finances, and child custody when living together. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Living with a partner is an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Would you like to add your partner to your will? Also, consider creating a power of attorney so your partner can access your financial accounts and bills. A health care directive is necessary if you want your partner to make your medical decisions if you ever become incapacitated.

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